You Take The High Road And I'll Take The Low Road

I’ll be in Glasgow in just over two weeks. The occasion is my first orchestral concert in the land of my grandmother’s fathers, if that makes any sense at all.

It is from that side of the family tree that I descend from the name, “Jackson”. I was recently informed - by our local Highland apparel emporium, here in British Columbia - that I am entitled to wear the Hunting Stewart tartan. It was either that or the pattern specially designed for Mr. M. Jackson of Neverland, California.

I should explain that on this year’s Burns Night, I was attending a formal dinner and felt honour bound to don a kilt with all of the accessories. It was an ensemble that caused grown woman to swoon and trembling men to run in terror. Then again, I was armed to the teeth.

Fear not, I have not become like one of those American Presidents who belatedly discovers that the blood in his little toe flows from a whisky still outside the village of Yell in Shetland. This is my round about way of saying, “The road lies ahead”.

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For those of you considering attending the concert with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on the 22nd of June – and that’s an awful lot of “Royal” - you might care to know what you will hear. I can assure you that fancy or formal dress will not be required.

For the last couple of years, Steve Nieve and I have been appearing with orchestras from Honolulu to Houston, from Chicago to Baltimore and, most recently, from Nashville to Minnesota. The repertoire has developed and changed radically since the year 2000, when these adventures began.

This concert in Glasgow and another with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic on the 25th of June will be the first to consist almost entirely of orchestral arrangements of songs.

Previously, we featured a 30-minute suite from the ballet score, “Il Sogno” and it had been erroneously stated that half of the Glasgow concert would consist of instrumental music.

However, as a guest of these orchestras, I think it is only good manners that they be heard before I enter the scene and start singing. So only a brief, overture-length excerpt from “Il Sogno” will be played, followed by a programme of songs dating from 1977 to the present day.


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These dates will be my first collaboration with these orchestras and the conductor, Clark Rundell. We will also be joined by the rhythm section of Chris Laurence on bass and Martin France on drums with Rob Buckland taking care of the saxophone features in a number of the arrangements.

This team will surely make short work of the more rhythmic songs; a 50s detective-theme arrangement of “Watching the Detectives”, Vince Mendoza’s psychedelic chart for the Billy Strayhorn composition, “Blood Count”, for which I wrote words and retitled, “My Flame Burns Blue” and the Charles Mingus number, “Hora Decubitus”.

These concerts obviously feature more ballad material than rock and roll but both Steve Nieve and I have continued to add to book of arrangements.

Some of this orchestration work was actually done while travelling, as I sensed the elements needed for a more balanced programme.

I wrote the arrangement of “All This Useless Beauty” while trapped in my hotel room by monsoon rains prior to our Honolulu dates of two years ago. Shortly before our last orchestral dates in the autumn of 2007, I arranged a song that I co-wrote with my wife, Diana, called, “The Girl In The Other Room”.

Steve Nieve’s version of “Greenshirt” is one of my personal favourites, making imaginative use of the woodwind section and calling for one of the percussionists to play an old manual typewriter.

At the end of 2007, I made an orchestral transcription of Chet Baker’s trumpet solo from “Shipbuilding” and was amazed to find that with very little additional harmonization, his spontaneous inventions could provide nearly all of the material for the orchestra. In a way, the arrangement is really his work.

There are some songs that lend themselves very obviously to the orchestral setting. We usually feature a couple of songs from the album, “Painted From Memory”, a full-string orchestra version of “Still” from “North” and the Charles Azanavour tune, “She”.

Some songs have been adapted or re-arranged from my work with the Brodsky Quartet. Richard Harvey – with whom I co-wrote the music for the television drama series, “G.B.H.” – provided a beautiful, full-orchestral setting of “Birds Will Still Be Singing” from “The Juliet Letters”.

My arrangement of “Almost Blue” was begun for string quartet, as an encore tune on “The Juliet Letters” world tour and has been adapted and expanded until it now features the entire orchestra and closing bars in which I do something unspeakable at the piano, while Steve Nieve takes a solo on the melodica.

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The concerts will also include the first full-orchestral performances of three excerpts from “The Secret Songs”, an unfinished work that was commissioned by the Royal Danish Opera as part of the Hans Christian Andersen bicentenary celebrations of 2005.

My version of Andersen story centres on his infatuation with the renowned Swedish soprano, Jenny Lind, who provided the inspiration for a number of his most famous tales and yet rejected his romantic advances, which were feeble at best.

In 1850 the “Divine Jenny” Lind undertook an American concert tour, the first of its kind in scope and acclaim, promoted by the showman P.T. Barnum.

There was certainly a marked contrast in the way the two men regarded and were motivated by Lind. Andersen elevated her to a pedestal of virtuous womanhood and artist ideal, while to Barnum she was more of a marketable entity.

One of the themes of Andersen’s story - that of a misfit in love with an unattainable woman - was of particular interest to me and can be clearly understood in the three numbers which will be performed.

Gisela Stille, who sang in the Lind part in the Copenhagen premiere of a “work-in-progress” song cycle in 2005, will sing, “How Deep Is The Red?” – an imagined folk riddle performed on the first occasion Andersen encounters the singer.

This will be followed a ballad in which Andersen recounts Lind’s romantic rejection. The title of the piece notes Lind’s response when Andersen asked why she could not return his love: “She Handed Me A Mirror”.

Finally, a duet, “He Has Forgotten Me Completely” – part of a dream in which Andersen imagines Lind performing his “secret songs” – which stand for the tales that she inspired in real life.

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The Glasgow concert will be followed by an appearance at the Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool on the 25th of June.

My Ma worked as an unpaid, volunteer usher at “The Phil” in the late 40s and early 50s, so it is something of a family reunion to be playing at this venerable institution.

2008 is also the year in which Liverpool celebrates being European Capital of Culture, so I’m glad to be playing in what I regard as the closest thing that I have to a “hometown”. It is pretty hard to be sentimental about Paddington, unless you mean the marmalade-eating bear.

The ECOC awards are usually accompanied by an influx of investment, European grants and the drawing up of grand town planning schemes. So, I wish I could believe that this award was somehow destined to transform the fortunes of the city.

I also wish I could comprehend the ugly local politics that has already capsized the original plans for at least one major event during this gala year.

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Last time I was in Liverpool, I was dismayed to find that the entrance to the famous ferry landing stage was a sprawling building site. I immediately checked my watch. Yes, it was already 2008. Isn’t this when the eyes of the world were upon us?

Perhaps, the people who might have been employed re-modelling that landmark had been busy, unwittingly destroying another. That is the renowned skyline as viewed from the river.

In a wiser but less civilised age, the twits who designed and sanctioned these latest, out-of-scale additions to the waterfront would have been taken out into Liverpool Bay with lead weights attached to their legs and pushed overboard.

Yeah, I used to play with Lego and Meccano when I was a kid but at least none of my “buildings” were full scale…

Okay, away from the river there are pristine shopping precincts and some fine new hotels and restaurants, together with the arrival of vendors who previously thought that Liverpool was a little beneath them. I hope that people also remember to support their locally owned businesses. Look what happened to Meccano.

Through the grim years of government hostility and neglect and the more depressing hours of self-pity and self-defeat, I’ve hoped to see the city restored to the kind of vibrancy of which my parents once spoke. They were born into the Great Depression and lived through the Second World War, so we’re talking about the good times here.

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So, what is there to celebrate?

Well, quite apart from the extraordinary numbers of painters, poets, playwrights, songwriters, sporting magicians, comedians, prize-fighters, thespians and rock and roll musicians who have come out of Liverpool, I always tell visitors to walk through the city with their head held up.

They will see some of the most remarkable architecture in Britain. Liverpool contains more listed buildings than any city outside of London.

It also should to be noted that the 18th century Town Hall has African faces carved into the sandstone of first storey decorations, right alongside barrels and bales and other commodities from the city’s mercantile and maritime boom years.

In fact, many of these grand structures were built with fortunes founded in the blood money flowing from the slave and cotton trades. The museums of the city are now opening up this chequered past to discussion and understanding, rather than it remaining a dirty, unspoken little secret.

Liverpool has always presented a series of paradoxes…

It used to have the world’s first overhead railway but they knocked it down. It had one of the first tram systems but they tore up the tracks in the late ’50s.

Liverpool also has rows of beautiful but abandoned Georgian terraces and not enough viable inner city housing, two contrasting cathedrals, only one of which looks as if it might see out this century. But then it also has two contrasting football teams, only one of which will ever win the European Cup.

In among the many thriving theatres and clubs, there are the obscured facades of many lost musical halls and picture palaces. Times move on. These are the venues in which my grandfather played as a pit musician, when he can home from working on the White Star liners in the late 20s.

He got back just in time for “talkies” to really take hold, throwing theatre musicians out of work. My grandmother never really forgave Al Jolson.

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Since the Tate Gallery moved into it’s great digs in the reclaimed Albert Dock building, it has provided an ideal space both for the works of Liverpudlian artists and visiting exhibitions, such as the one in which the paintings of JMW Turner were hung in natural light.

Even before the Tate came to town, the Walker Art Gallery was one of best-kept secrets in the North of England. You have more chance of standing alone for a few minutes in a room with a George Stubbs, a Joseph Wright of Derby or even a Rembrandt than you have in any other major city.

The institution has a remarkable collection of Pre-Raphaelite works and if you need to see more you can go “over the water” to Port Sunlight and visit the Lady Lever Art Gallery.

Sure, there are also bars and guided tours offering to part the passing Beatles fan from their holiday savings but these amusements are only what you find in other music cities such as Memphis and New Orleans.

Having been christened at the church of Holy Cross, in the North End of Birkenhead and through my mother’s origins in Liverpool 8, I’ve sometimes snuck onto lists of famous Liverpudlian sons. Then again, if I’ve played a bad gig, I’ve also been written off as a “Cockney” interloper.

I’m not going to be the guest who is invited to the party and then spends all his time criticising the hosts, so I’ll hold my peace and conclude this piece.

I will close by saying I’m really looking forward to playing my only English show this year in the People’s Republic and ask that you lend your support to The Picket, the music resource venue in Jordan Street which continues to fight for its place in the “culture”, just as it has done in less optimistic times.